Category: Classroom Management

“Teacher, Johnny hit me!” – Not My Problem

Image courtesy of

How often do we hear a littany of complaints from our young learners:  “Teacher, Johnny hit me!”, “Teacher, Emily took my pencil!”, “Teacher, Billy isn’t paying attention!”?  When I first started teaching young learners, my immediate reaction was to be the problem-solver, to fix the situation for the students.  Luckily, I worked at a daycare with some great teachers who always had a saying, “I’m sorry.  I don’t listen to tattling.  Why don’t you talk to Child about how you feel?”.  Many children use tattling as a form of attention-getting, revenge, or a way to assert power over another, none of which foster a caring and supportive classroom.

That’s why, these days, when a child tells me another child hit him/her, I say, “Not my problem.  You deal with it.”  Just kidding :) .  But I definitely don’t solve the problem for them.  I think it’s so important for children to learn conflict resolution skills at an early age.  Helping children to deal with difficult situations, control their emotions, and communicate effectively will serve them well for the rest of their life.

Instead of being the problem-solver, I simply act as a mediator.  I help the children openly discuss their feelings with each other and encourage them to look at the situation from the other’s point of view.  I then encourage them to discuss solutions.  This process isn’t always easy and children will need lots of support, but the pay off is more than worth the time and investment.

Do you have any personal success stories using this type of mediation?  How effective is it in your classrooms?  Do you have other preferred methods of conflict resolution with young learners?

Related Articles:

Conflict Resolution with YLs

Learning is Messy!

Image courtesy of Provinciales Primary School

What’s your vision of the ideal classroom?  Is it a classroom where every learner sits calmly and quietly?  Do students always raise their hands before talking?  Are they always focused on their task?

In my experience, this is what’s passed down to us as the ideal class.  But whose ideal class is it?  The teacher’s of course.  The teacher is the one who wants all the students sitting quietly and listening only to them.  They don’t want the chaos of 20 students all talking at once.  Every student should be focused on their task whether they find it interesting or not.

My classrooms rarely fit this vision because I think learning is loud.  Learning is messy.  I try my best to make learners interested in my lessons.  They don’t sit quietly because they aren’t going to get a sticker, they’ll be put in time out, or I’ll yell at them.  In fact, they generally don’t sit quietly at all. :)

When young learners are engaged in a lesson, they’re excited; they want to shout and move around.  A loud classroom means that they’re really happy and enjoy what we’re doing, which will make them feel positive about English and learning.  What more could I ask for?

It’s also great practice.  Sure, I could have students raise their hand before speaking, but then only one student would speak and they’d only say one sentence.  Letting them all shout out the answers, or shouting to be chosen next, or shouting to say what they want to do next is great.  Sure it’s loud and chaotic, but not only are they getting tons of practice, they’re using English to express themselves.  To say what they want to say and to get their desires and interests across.  They’re speaking in their own voice, and not just when the teacher says it’s ok.

I also love projects and tasks and role-plays where all the learners are trying it together.  Will some get side-tracked?  Of course, they’re only 5 years old.  But what would they be doing otherwise?  If you only have one pair of students at a time do something, then the others will simply be bored in their chairs and not learning anyway.  At least if they all participate, they’ll work with each other.  And the surprising thing is, most of them will do the activity to the best of their ability.  Even better, they’ll start teaching each other.  There’s nothing cuter than seeing a five-year-old teach another five-year-old how to buy fruit in English :)

Yes, my classrooms are loud.  Yes, learners are often moving around and may get off task.  But they’re also learning to express themselves.  They’re learning to take responsibility, share, and help each other too.  Learning may be messy, but there sure is a lot of learning, even if it’s spread all over the classroom floor :)

Preventing Punishment


Image courtesy of Bankrupcy Litigation Blog.

Often it’s not what you do to stop unwanted behavior when it occurs, but what you do to prevent it that really counts in creating a classroom environment productive to learning.

There are 3 main things I look at to prevent problems occuring in the classroom:  clear guidelines & expectations, classroom awareness, and engaging activities.

Guidelines and expectations are something that need to be set right from the beginning.  For many young learners, school is a new environment and it’s often not clear to them what they are doing there or what is expected of them while they are there. 

This is especially true if your school’s program has a different environment from other schools they are going to.  In Asia, schools are very disciplined and structured, so when students come to classes at my school, they are very unsure of how to behave.  The play-type atmosphere and more open environment makes many young learners feel like they can do anything in our classrooms.  In fact, they don’t know what to do with themselves because they’ve never been in such a free environment before and this often has them bouncing off the walls the first few classes :) .

Not only should expectations be set early, but they should also be discussed with the students.  As teachers, we should be careful not just to set rules and expect students to follow them.  We should reach a level of mutual understanding with the students and explain the reasons for rules.  Explaining to students that it’s important to respect each other, so we should listen when others are speaking is better than simply saying “Be quiet and listen.”  Even learners as young as 3 years old can participate in a discussion about the reasons behind most rules.

This goes equally for activities as well as the general class.  Whenever a new activity is being introduced, the rules and expectations for that activity should be explained clearly beforehand.

Being aware of your classes’ needs is another easy fix for preventing students from acting out.  If two students are always picking on each other, move them to different seats. If students can’t sit in a circle without fidgeting, give them chairs. 

It’s also about reading your class.  If students are getting bored with an activity, change to a new one.  If students have a lot of energy, get them up and moving.  If they can’t focus as a group any more, move to an individual craft.  

Out of all these preventative measures, I think the most important and effective is engaging your students.  As Simon mentioned in a comment on my last post, the primary reasons most children act up are because they are bored or the task is too difficult.   This is something I commonly see in classrooms and remember from my own schooling.  When students are bored, they lose interest and start to behave in ways that are unproductive for learning. 

Making engaging lessons comes down to asking and answering the right questions.  What is the age and developmental level of the students?  What are their interests?  How long are their attention spans?  If you can answer these questions, it’s pretty easy to create activities that are the right level and length that match your students interests.  Engaged learners are active learners and don’t have time to get distracted.

Also, one thing I’ve notice is the number of students an activity involves has a huge impact on how interesting it is.  Designing activities that have all the learners participating are much better than ones where only one or two at a time participate.   

What other ways do you use to create a positive learning environment and prevent disruptive behavior in your classrooms?

Related Posts:

Discipline & Punish:  The Birth of the School

Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the School


Image courtesy of Brandon’s Useless Knowledge

Many countries around the world still use punishment, even corporal punishment, as a common classroom management technique. This has wide repercussions not only in the classroom, but within society as a whole.

The underlying idea is this – if you punish a child (or adult for that matter) they will be deterred from doing the same thing again because they don’t want to be punished.

Well, if you ask me, that’s a pretty wrongheaded way to go about it. It’s an overly simplistic behavorist model of both learning and morality, i.e. if you shock the dog, it won’t bark any more.

This is wrongheaded for two reasons. 1) It makes the assumption that humans are basically evil and need to be programmed to make the right choices (does anyone else see the influence of Christian thought on this one?). I, for one, don’t feel such assumptions are productive. 2) It also removes reflection and empathy from the process of human interaction. Instead, deliquents are isolated and punished, supposedley so they can “think about what they’ve done”, but we all know that that never happens. Something more along the lines of “boy, do I hate that teacher. You just wait till I get you back!“.  Rather than initiating a dialogue and engaging with the class/society, people are being told what to do, how to behave, and are being removed from group.

What do punishments actually teach anybody? They primarily teach the sacred priniciple of “don’t get caught”. Punishment, instead of modifying behavior (which is the proposed goal), simply teaches people that they need to be smarter about doing the wrong thing. In effect, if you can get away with it, then it’s not a problem. This is why students simply find better and better ways to cheat or why you realize the dog is still drinking out of the toilet bowl every time you leave the house.

What we really want is reflection and internalization of moral principles. You shouldn’t cheat because it’s the wrong thing to do and it can have a negative impact on your learning, not because you’re afraid the teacher will give you an F if they catch you.

The other really big problem with punishment is that it builds up resentment and a negative classroom environment. How many students have you met coming out of detention that were reformed or forgiving towards the authority that put them there? How many ex-cons come out of prison a new person and with no grudges against the cops, the system, the government? The entire set of assumptions systems of punishment are based on are simply ridiculous.

Instead we want to create a classroom and society where people are taught to behave the right way because they want to and because they believe it’s the right thing to do. The next few posts will explore alternatives to punishment in the classroom.

What are your thoughts on punishment in the classroom or more widely within society as a whole?

Related Posts:

Preventing Punishment

The Importance of Pair Work


This was originally going to be a comment on Willy Cardoso’s Blog – Authentic Teaching, but it got to be so long I decided to make it a post all its own.  As a result, it also connects to Kalinago’s dogme questions of the week, which I was going to address anyway.

A maxim we often learn (and that I push) in training courses is the importance of pair work.  Willy commented that some learners prefer to work alone and that pair work is often over-relied upon with the ESL classroom.   I would disagree.

I have had many learners that prefer working alone.  In fact, I am one of those learners myself.  But language is co-constructed; it is social.  We don’t learn language to think to ourselves in a foreign tongue.  We learn it to learn how to communicate to and with others.

This is why pair/group work is so important.  The students need to learn how to communicate with other individuals.  It’s the spontaneous nature of such communication that is of value within pair and group work.  You can learn a lot on your own, but to then access that knowledge in a split second while another person is talking is another matter entirely.

I, for one, learned a large amount of grammar and vocabulary on my own when I first started learning Turkish.  Yet, my level of conversation remained agonizingly slow and stilted.  I hadn’t acquired the skill or automaticity required to actually participate in my new linguistic world.

Pair/group work also builds community, which is a very important factor in the classroom.  It’s generally not a good idea to let the loners sit by themselves because it will create a negative space in the social fabric that we try to foster in our classrooms.  We want our students to collaborate, to support and scaffold each other, to become, if not friends, at least classmates.
Pair work also greatly increases the speaking time of the students.  As language is skill, not a subject, they need all the practice time they can get.

Whenever I have a student that prefers to work alone, I always pull them aside and ask them to help out in some way.  Perhaps, rather than preferring not to work with a student because you are better than them, help them instead.  After all, one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to others.  Or they can help me out by walking around and monitoring students, offering feedback, etc.

Finally, one of the most important skills for global citizens is learning to work with others as part of a team.  Few people are learning English only for passive purposes.  The majority are learning, or being forced to learn it, with the expectation that they will use it to communicate with others in English.  Effective communication and teamwork are such important skills in their own right, that I think we have to encourage them as primary components of our classrooms.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for some individual reflection – this is important too – but I think the majority of that can be saved for outside the classroom.   If a student prefers learning on their own so much, why take a course?  If they are forced to be there, they will study on their own when they get home, so it’s not like they have to be with a partner all the time.

For all these reasons, pair/group work is essential to the ESL classroom or any classroom as far as I’m concerned.

Another point Willy makes is that there is often a problem with the “now talk to the person next to you” activity and I would agree.   This activity is often aimless and has no connection to anything the learners actually want to talk about.

What dogme points out is that this communications MUST be meaningful to the learners.  It should be something they want to discuss and which they have not already discussed before with their partner (in L1).  You can make pair work goal-oriented. – rather than talking being the goal in itself, something should be accomplished, decided, resolved, planned,or etc.

However, real communication begets itself.  Much of our conversation is just idle chatter, but we are interested in it, we have some investment there.  That interest and investment lies in the spaces between the participants in the classroom.  It’s the ties that relationships are built upon and it takes place where the language is relevant and meaningful.  This interactivity, this natural desire to communicate, is ultimately what dogme tries to tap into.

Some questions to think about with pair/group work:

Why are students working together?  Is there a social, communicative, linguistic aim or are they talking just to talk?

Do the students know why they are working together?

Do the students have a goal or end point in mind?

Do the students actually care about what they are being asked to do?  Is there personal investment?

Is it relevant to the students’ lives and learning goals?

Do the students have the language necessary to talk about the topic or complete the task?

Related Posts:

British Council on Pair Work

Using English on Pair Work

ELT News – Promoting Oral Fluency on Pair Work

Marxist TEFL – A Critique of Pair Work

Dogme Blog Challenge #1

Authentic Teaching – Response to Challenge #1

Tao T(e)aching – Response #1

Sabrina’s Weblog – Response #1

Box of Chocolates – Response #1

Idle Thoughts – Response #1

Creative Use of Music: Sing a Song


Many people shy away from singing songs with adults, but it’s actually great.  As long as you are willing to embarrass yourself and sing in front of everyone, the students will almost always follow suit.

I remember one of my first classes ever.  I had a group of beginners and we were working on body parts, so we did the Hokey Pokey.  There was a 40-year-old business man that absolutely refused to participate.  I said no problem.  I taught the song and actions and then we played it for real.  Halfway through, the business man stood up and joined us and he was the most animated and into out of the entire class, lol.

Singing is actually really good for Turkish students because it gets them to link words together, a major problem many students have here.  You can’t sing word-stop-word.  It just doesn’t work :)   Singing can help any group of learners with stress, rhythm, and linking words.

Songs are also just a great way to warm people up in the beginning, wake them up in the middle of a lesson, or fill the last five minutes if there’s nothing else to do.

I almost always use children’s songs because they are short, fun, and have lots of repetition.  I always have the students perform the actions as well :) Some of my favorites are:

Baby Bumble Bee

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Little Bunny Foo Foo

Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar

The Hokey Pokey

Related Links:

Pictures Painted in Sound

Music in the Background

Song Stories

Creative Use of Music: Music in the Background


Simple but sweet.  Music in the background has a lot of uses.  Here are a few:

-  In general, music in the background is just a good signal once students become accustomed to it.  When you turn off the music, the students know that it’s time to transition, look up at you, etc.

-  Especially with kids, but also with adults the mood and tempo of the music can change the mood of the class. You can play fast songs for games and slow songs for thoughtful preparation or writing.

-  Playing music in the background makes your students talk louder.  This is a good trick for those classes that like to whisper when doing pair or group work.  I highly recommend it.

-  Music can also be used to block out the voices of other students.  This is especially useful if students are preparing for a debate or some kind of game where they don’t want anyone else to overhear what they are saying.  It’s also nice because students can ask you questions and not be so worried about embarrassing themselves by asking “a stupid question” in front of their peers.

-  Setting the mood for role-plays.  Dance music at a party, muzak during shopping, even speeches at a historical event can all be good for setting the scene and making things a bit more realistic.

Generally when picking songs it’s useful to play instrumentals as I’ve found that students sometimes stop doing whatever they should be doing in order to try and understand the song lyrics.

Volume is also important.  It should be just loud enough to have an effect.

Do you have any other ways you use music in the background for a class?

Related Posts:

Song Stories

Pictures Painted in Sound

Sing a Song

Building Relationships 3 – Trust Falls


Write the word “Trust” on the board.  Ask your students to take a minute and reflect on what trust means to them, where it’s important, and if it’s important in the classroom.  You can have them write down some ideas on paper if you wish.

Tell them to share their ideas with a partner.

Now ask the class if they trust you.  Hopefully, they say yes :) .  Tell them that you trust all of them and that you are going to prove it to them.  Ask them to volunteer a couple ways in which you might do this.

Ask a volunteer to come to the front.  Tell them that you are going to fall and that they have to catch you.

Do a practice run so they get a feel for your weight and so they can get the positioning down right.  The volunteer should place their hands firmly on your shoulder blades with the fingertips points up (this is very important because the wrists are weak and if they do it the opposite way they could drop you), bend their knees in a tripod fashion, and get themselves squarely under you.  See the above picture (although this example has two people supporting which is a good idea for heavier individuals).

Lean backward into them and have them take you farther and farther down each time.

Now tell them you will do it for real.  You need to keep your eyes closed, your legs straight, and cross your arms in front of you like the guy in the picture.  Then just tip backwards.  It’s a bit scary, but the volunteer will catch you.

Now switch positions and do the same with them.

Each student now grabs a partner and they start of with some practice runs and then do the real thing.  Warning:  Make sure partners are of about equal weight.  If there is a really big person in the class, you can do it with two people supporting, one at each shoulder blade.  Have them change partners a few times.

You can now do a reflective writing or a round table discussion on how they felt during the exercise.  What did they learn about themselves and each other?  Is it easy to trust others?  Why or why not?  In what ways do we need to trust each other in the classroom?

This activity is great for building up relationships in the class and fostering trust.  I highly recommend it for any class.

Related Posts:

Building Relationships 1: Tank Game

Building Relationships 2:  Human Knot

Building Relationships 4: Circle of Trust

Building Relationships 2 – The Human Knot


This activity works best with between 8-15 people.  If there are too few it goes really quick.  If there are too many it simply takes too long or just doesn’t work.  You can split your class into groups and make it a race if you have a larger class.

Participants need to form a circle.  Then everyone needs to reach across the circle and lock hands with someone else, grabbing the hands of two different people.

Now tell students that they have to untangle themselves without breaking their grips.

This is a great trust-building exercise.  Most people don’t believe it’s possible at first but the vast majority of groups untangle themselves successfully.  In the end, all participants should be facing outwards, forming the original circle.

If participants get really stuck you can allow one unclasp and reclasp.

The sense of accomplishment when the knot is untangled is fantastic.

Obviously this activity brings out a lot of language related to body parts, prepositions of movement and place, directions, and imperatives.

Here’s a video of the activity being done (apologies for the religious theme):

Related Posts:

Building Relationships 1: Tank Game

Building Relationships 3:  Trust Falls

Building Relationships 4:  Circle of Trust

Building Relationships: War & Peace


Not too long ago Marisa Constantinides posted a piece that discussed building trust and relationships in the classroom.  I think this is probably one of the most important things you can do to create a positive classroom environment.  This series will look at a number of different ways to build relationships in the classroom between you and the students as well as between the students themselves.

I think relationship building is often overlooked in the classroom.  How many lesson plans list “to build bonds” or “to establish trust” in their objectives?  Activities designed to build relationships and a positive environment are extremely beneficial for lowering the affective filter.  By doing such activities we are in fact laying the groundwork for a constructive environment in which learning can occur. It’s well worth the time to think about and plan for.  Isn’t teaching really about relationships after all?  The learning of a language really comes second to this.  I think we have all seen teachers who do everything right, but if they don’t have a connection with their students, the lessons still fall flat.

Luckily for those of us in Turkey, one of the greatest things about Turkish students is how quickly they bond with each other.  Despite the many differences that exist, they will quickly form a cohesive whole without a whole lot of prompting by the teacher.  This is a strength you can exploit to the fullest.  Often classes will go to great lengths to stay together and adding or taking away students can be quite disruptive.  Although, again, new members will quickly be accepted into the group given a little time.  I think the most common positive feedback I get from my classes is that they “made some good friends.”

One way to build up bonds between students and get them to learn to rely on each other is to use pair or group work situations where they have to work together to complete the goal.  Of course, any goal-oriented group activity accomplishes this, but something with a physical element and an element of challenge can get much better results.

When I worked in domestic violence we did all kinds of trust-building exercises and I decided to modify one of them to fit an ESL context.  First, let’s look at the lesson plan and then let’s highlight some important aspects of it.  Here’s the lesson plan:


Tank Battle!

Level: Elementary & Up


  • Build up trust in the class
    Direction vocabulary
    Prepositions of place & movement


Plan: Walk into the class and draw a big bull’s-eye up on the board (I like to tape a picture of a tank in the center).  Draw a line on the floor where people have to throw from.  Then throw a crumpled up paper ball on the floor.  Point to the ball to indicate that you want it.  You also might want to tell students not to touch it.

Leave the classroom and put on a blindfold.  Enter the classroom and start stumbling around as if you’re searching for something.  The students should catch on immediately that you want the ball.  If not, ask where the ball is.

The students should guide you to the ball using whatever language they have.  Then indicate that you want to hit the target.  Again, students will guide you to throw it using whatever language they know.  You can scaffold by asking.  For example, “should I throw it (mime throwing)?”

After you have successfully thrown the ball at the target, ask the students how close you were to the bull’s-eye.  Then put up on the board any language they used and try to elicit some more and add your own.  Students will need language like, go forward, move your hand to the right, bend down, , turn to the left, throw it hard, etc.

Depending on the level of the class you might want to do some TPR with this.  Play a quick game of Simon Says to familiarize them with the necessary vocabulary. Or you could set up 3 chairs at the front of the class and have students come up in groups.  The person in the middle gives commands while the other two follow.  Work through a couple groups this way.

Once you are sure people are fairly familiar with the necessary language, point to the tank and ask them what it is.  Ask them when tanks are used.  Tell them that they are going to learn to fight a war in English!

The Rules of War are:  1) No touching , 2) Stay behind your tank at all times, 3) Commanders cannot touch the balls, and 4) if you get hit with a ball, you are out.

Split the class off into pairs.  One person in each group is the tank.  They will be blindfolded.  The other person is the commander.  They will give the directions.

Scatter a bunch of tank balls on the floor (crumpled pieces of paper).  Explain to the students, by way of demonstration, that the tanks must pick up a ball and try to hit another tank with it. Once a tank is hit, they are out until the next round.

Blindfold the tanks and spin them around.  Keep track of who hits who.  The first round the teacher should monitor the game, but the 2nd round should have the teacher participating with someone else monitoring.  If a group uses L1, they are automatically out.

Probably after round 1 you will need to revise some of the necessary commands and directions.  Play the game for as many rounds as the students are interested in.

Get feedback on the lesson and tell students they are now ready to fight a war in English :)


The first thing to notice is that the teacher demonstrates the activity themself.  When building trust, we can never ask the learner to do something we don’t do ourselves.  We can model the activity and create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable copying us.

Simon Says is your typical TPR.  All the students perform the same actions and so nobody really feels embarrassed (well, too embarrassed anyway :) )and it helps foster group bonds, especially as they see the teacher joining in.

The blindfold activity is great because students really have to trust one another to guide them and there is a competative element that makes it really fun.  You could also split the class up into teams, one with blue blindfolds and one with red, to foster more comraderie.

In the end everyone gets a laugh and they really start to rely on each other.  It’s a good way to get classes working together.  They really learn to trust each other and the element of putting yourself out there and taking risks creates an environment that encourages further risk-taking in the class when it comes to language use.

Here is the downloadable lesson.

What do you think?  Do you ever focus on relationship-building as a lesson objective?  What other activities can you think of that build group cohesiveness, relationships, trust, and/or a positive atmosphere?

On another note, I did a humorous guest piece over on TEFLTastic with Alex Case on what managers look for in their teachers here.

Related Posts:

Building Productive Classroom Relationships

Building Relationships 2:  The Human Knot

Building Relationships 3:  Trust Falls

Building Relationships 4:  Circle of Trust

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